Gender debates often either stay on the level of abstraction or call for immediate action. At either extreme, gender issues might seem far removed from daily concerns. But gender perception can be a powerful lens through which we reexamine a society’s values and practices. One such issue is middle and high school science textbooks.
Back in April we gave you a translation of an Epi magazine article by Woo Ah-young, a Dong-A Science journalist, titled Gender Bias in Science Textbooks. Her piece analyzes the most recent middle and high school textbooks in Korean public schools. For her, the examples, the illustrations, and the scientists introduced as role models in Korean textbooks are biased against female students. Using military and industrial examples, especially in physics textbooks, makes the subject much more hospitable to male students socialized to be familiar with these topics, while female students socialized to be more familiar with “feminine” concerns of care provision and domesticity are at a disadvantage. Such gender bias also exists with teachers and professors, curriculum planners, parents, and within other parts of the society.
Then would it be enough to simply provide more “traditionally feminine” examples in science textbooks? What is the state of gender perception in Korea’s secondary school science education? How important are textbooks in educating students in the sciences and reshaping gender perception? How can we untangle the relationship between preference, genetics, and socialization? How is the state of gender perception in Korea compared to other countries?
In an email interview with The Dissolve, Woo Ah-young touched on some of these questions and clarified her perspectives on science education and gender socialization. She also provided some more background on research and government policy in South Korea. Here it is, translated and lightly edited.
In the article, I use the term gender to refer to socialized roles—specifically masculinity and femininity. Regardless of biological sex, the article criticizes the fact that science textbooks are written in a way that makes it easier for people with modernized masculinity to understand. I didn’t mention sexual minorities or non-cisgender people, but I believe that a similar criticism can be made from their perspective as well.
I would like to make it clear that this is my personal opinion. In the public education system, classes tend to be taught based on textbooks, not only for science but in all subjects. All the topics that are covered in classes as well as examples are based on textbooks, and teachers certainly teach classes using textbooks. So if the topics and examples that are in the textbooks are embedded with gender bias, students’ understanding of science will vary greatly by individual. Personally, I believe that textbooks have a lot more influence on students than teachers, parents, peers, media, educational system, and other factors. But apart from teaching the science, it’s difficult to say how much textbooks shape perceptions of gender roles. There are so many different factors in our daily lives that indoctrinate stereotypical gender roles, such as TV programs, YouTube videos, and commercials.
Initially, women in science who graduate with a major in natural sciences or engineering appear to have a high rate of participation in economic activities. However, the number of women taking a career break due to marriage and childbirth is higher than women in other fields. According to the 2016 Analysis Report in the Statistics of Training and Utilization of Women in Science, Engineering & Technology, specifically the results of the ‘percentage of women on career breaks among unemployed women’, show that 55.7% of unemployed women in the humanities are on career breaks, compared to 66.9% in engineering (and 54.4% in natural sciences). The reasons for this aren’t clear, but we need to find out if there is a disadvantage for women in engineering-related jobs who are married with children.
Gender socialization is the process of learning the social gender roles through parents, teachers, and the media. For instance, in children’s toys and videos, the differences between men and women are emphasized. Since there are a lot of factors that contribute to gender socialization, I believe it’d be difficult to completely avoid it. We need to be more aware of it, and continue to change it going forward.
Whether personal preference for dolls or rockets is hereditary or a result of socialization has been a difficult question in science. A lot of science scholars have debated this topic, but we don’t know what the true answer is. As you said, using cooking to teach science for girls would only reinforce traditional gender roles. What I wanted to emphasize in the article was that the topics covered or examples given in science textbooks tend to be based on traditional masculinity. For instance, rockets and guns, which are related to wars. I think we need to teach science using more diverse examples than those. Including cooking. There are boys who like to cook, although that does not conform to traditional masculinity. I’d like for students to not think that “Physics is (traditionally) masculine.”
Awareness has grown in society, and there are guidelines that specifically mention that gender-biased or gender discriminatory images and test should not be used when compiling textbooks. There is still a lot to fix, but I think things are changing albeit slowly. Aside from textbooks, I think young parents are becoming rapidly aware of gender-biased socialization in children’s toys and videos.
Personally, I believe that many schools emphasize traditional gender roles and norms. I hope that teachers and parents can become aware of this and change our education, so that school education and students themselves can be free of traditional gender roles.
Research and policy
The overall percentage of students who choose a major in science and engineering is 32% in Korea, which is the highest in the world together with Germany (32%), followed by Sweden (28%). But the percentage of girlswho choose a major in science and engineering is 29% in Korea, which is lower than the OECD average of 34%. In Indonesia, 48% of the students who go into science and engineering are girls; 45% in Italy, and 44% in Greece. If women were naturally designed to dislike science and engineering, there wouldn’t be such a huge difference between countries. I believe that ultimately education creates such gender gaps.
There are a lot of similar cases. In 2005, Harvard’s president Lawrence Summers sparked an uproar internationally when he said one reason that fewer women succeed in science and math careers might be innate differences between men and women. But I didn’t need to look very far. High school girls I interviewed for this article were enraged about hearing similar comments from their science teachers. One of the teachers I interviewed said something similar. And one girl told me that she’d heard women were innately bad at math and science and that was why she didn’t choose a major in physics. This is a clear example that such a notion deters women from working in science. Even if girls overcome such bias and do choose a major in science and engineering, there are still many factors that chip away their confidence. We do at least have a lot of women science teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools, but there are only a handful of women professors in universities. Women students in engineering have difficulty finding a role model.
I imagine that it would be great to have a project for compiling gender-neutral textbooks. I’m not sure if the Moon Jae-in administration is doing anything particular for this issue at the government level.
In terms of Dong-A Science, where I work, two-thirds of over 30 science journalists are women. There aren’t many inconveniences at work for being a woman, but occasionally I get the sense that some people (scientists) I interview think I wouldn’t be able to understand what I’m researching. Some even say that they don’t know how to explain things to a woman reporter. They only agree to talk to me when I tell them that I have an engineering background.
When toxic sanitary pads became an issue, I collaborated with environmental toxicity researchers to conduct a toxicity test on vaginal cleansers. In collaboration with the Center for Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology (WISET), I wrote an article introducing young women scientists from Korea. And I wrote about studies on men’s infertility and male contraceptives.
Science journalism often introduces weapons technology and astronomical engineering. It’s similar to the problem in science textbooks that I wrote about. So my recent interest is in identifying what science journalists tend to miss when we choose what to write about. I think of people we’ve neglected in science articles. In that sense, I’m pleased to see research presentations on women’s health, which has been relatively ignored. And I’m also interested in studies that look at pregnancy and childbirth—traditionally seen as women’s topics—from a male perspective. Studies on male contraceptives, for example.